20 July 1944 and Aftermath IV

Soviet T34 tank entering Minsk, early July 1944

Battle fronts in Europe as of 15 July 1944

The combined efforts of the quadrumvirate would have served little purpose had the armed forces shown signs of disaffection and wavered in their backing for the regime. We already saw, however, that, amid the shocked response at Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt, military leaders were keener than ever to demonstrate their loyalty to Hitler and dissociate themselves from the uprising against the regime. The arch-loyalist Jodl, his head bandaged after being slightly wounded in the bomb blast and in deep shock at what had happened, set the tone. He told Goebbels that the loyal generals who worked closely with Hitler would help him ‘ruthlessly hunt down the defeatists, putschists and assassination instigators’. So outraged was he at the ‘treachery’ from within that he favoured disbanding the General Staff altogether. ‘The 20th of July’, he told officers of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, was the ‘blackest day in German history’, worse even than 9 November 1918, ‘unique in its monstrosity’. Now there would be pitiless reprisals against those responsible. When ‘everything rotten has been weeded out’, there would be a new unity. ‘Even if luck should be against us, we must be determined to gather round the Führer at the last, so that we may be justified before posterity.’ Jodl sought a personal show of loyalty from the officers present who were to seal their commitment to sharing their destiny with the Führer by a handshake.

Fear of any connection with the plotters, and the dire consequences such a discovery would entail, naturally played a significant part in the new rush to demonstrate loyalty beyond question. But the support for Hitler and denunciation of treachery by the army against their supreme commander and head of state was for the most part spontaneous and genuine. Even so, Hitler and the regime leadership were leaving nothing to chance. The upsurge of bile vented at the officer corps by Party fanatics, which Bormann even had to dampen down, now offered the perfect atmosphere in which new controls could be introduced and new efforts made to improve the ideological indoctrination of the army. The introduction (initiated by the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces, not by Hitler) on 23 July of the ‘Heil Hitler’ greeting instead of the military salute provided an external sign of the reinforced bonds with the Führer.

Hitler’s immediate step, within hours of the assassination attempt, was to restore order in what he had regarded, long before the plot, as the army’s most critical weak spot. For three weeks since Zeitzler’s breakdown at the beginning of July the army had in effect lacked a Chief of the General Staff. With the imminent danger of the Red Army breaking through into East Prussia, a new chief was a vital necessity. And since, in Hitler’s eyes, the source of the cancer that had led to the attempted uprising lay in this key centre of army operational planning, a reliable new chief was essential to make the General Staff both militarily effective and politically sound. Hitler’s intended choice, General Walter Buhle, had been injured in the assassination attempt. He turned, therefore, to the highly experienced and well-respected tank specialist Heinz Guderian, since early 1943 Inspector-General of Panzer Troops. A fervent nationalist and anti-Communist, a personality of great drive and dynamism, extremely forceful in his views, and a daring strategist, Guderian had played a notable part in persuading Hitler, whom in earlier years he had greatly admired, of the tactical value in modern warfare of concentrated and swift panzer attack. He had gained plaudits for the great panzer thrust through the Ardennes in 1940 that had played a major part in the spectacular collapse of Allied forces in France. A year later, his panzer forces had spearheaded the initially notable advances in Russia. Conflict with the Commander-in-Chief of Army Group Centre, Field-Marshal Hans Günther von Kluge, over tactics, and Guderian’s fiery temperament had brought his dismissal in the winter crisis of 1941, but he had been recalled by Hitler in February 1943, in the wake of another crisis, the catastrophe at Stalingrad. Though increasingly sceptical about Hitler’s conduct of the war, and despite being approached by the conspirators, Guderian had the following year kept his hands clean in the plot, and still condemned Stauffenberg’s attempt after the war. He certainly had Goebbels’ imprimatur. The Propaganda Minister described him as ‘insurpassable in loyalty to the Führer’. In his dealings with Hitler, Guderian would learn in the months to come that loyalty and sound military judgement seldom went hand in hand. But following his appointment on 21 July, he was keen to display his credentials as a loyalist and establish unconditional loyalty in an almost entirely reconstructed General Staff, which had seen so many of its former officers arrested under suspicion of complicity in the plot. He rapidly denounced what he depicted as the defeatism and cowardice that had led to the disgrace of the General Staff, and guaranteed an officer corps now completely loyal to the Führer. One of the early steps he took was to ensure that not merely the high level of ability associated with the General Staff, the ‘intellectual elite’ of the army, but ideological commitment to Nazi ideals was now required. On 29 July he issued the order that every General Staff officer should be a National Socialist Leadership Officer (Nationalsozialistischer Führungsoffizier, NSFO), that ‘he must demonstrate and prove, as well as in tactics and strategy, through an exemplary stance in political questions, through active direction and instruction of younger comrades in the intentions of the Führer, that he belongs to the “selection of the best” ’. The General Staff, having failed disastrously and criminally in the eyes of the regime’s leaders, was now particularly exposed to Nazification. No further disaffection could be expected from that quarter.

Hitler had established a corps of NSFOs within the High Command of the Wehrmacht in December 1943 and placed it under the charge of General Hermann Reinecke. Its task was to instil the Nazi spirit into troops who, he feared, were being affected by subversive Soviet propaganda. For Hitler and the regime’s leadership, breathing fanaticism into the troops was the road to victory.97 There was little liking for the new institution among the officer corps, and the NSFOs had a hard time gaining acceptance. The failed uprising of July 1944 drastically changed the situation. It was not that the NSFOs were now greeted with open arms by most soldiers, or that their message was warmly welcomed and taken to heart. On the contrary: their presence often remained resented, and their pep-talks frequently still fell on deaf ears. Even so, much of the Wehrmacht’s mass base was still potentially receptive to Nazi ideals, since around a third of ordinary soldiers were or had been members of some Party affiliate.

In any case, the new circumstances meant that there was now no protection against the extended deployment of these military missionaries of Nazi ideology. Their chief, General Reinecke, indicated the possibilities in August: ‘With the traitors wiped out, the last opponents of a decisive politicization of the Wehrmacht have been eliminated. There must be no more obstacles in the way of National Socialist leadership work.’ By the end of 1944 there were more than a thousand full-time and as many as 47,000 part-time NSFOs, most of them members of the Party, working in the Wehrmacht. The task accorded them was to ‘educate’ the soldiers to an ‘unconstrained will to destroy and to hate’.

‘Guidelines for the NS-Leadership’, distributed on 22 July, offer a glimpse of this doctrinal intrusion. The troops were to be fully informed of the ‘cowardly murderous strike against the Führer’ and the events of 20 July. The addresses that evening by Hitler, Göring and Dönitz were to be read out. Every soldier was to be clear that any sign of insubordination would be punished by death. It was the duty of any soldier of honour, conscious of his duty, to intervene as strongly as possible against ‘symptoms of unsoldierly and dishonourable behaviour’. National Socialist Germany would know how to prevent a repeat of the ‘stab in the back’ of 1918 or anything similar to the ‘pitiful treason’ in Italy (at the toppling of Mussolini in July 1943). Only the united strength of all Germans could fend off the threat to the whole of Europe from the Reich’s enemies. One man alone could save Germany from Bolshevism and destruction: ‘our Führer, Adolf Hitler’. The message was, therefore, to stand all the more solidly and fervently behind the Führer, and to fight still more fanatically.

A fateful, lasting consequence of the bomb plot was the elimination of any possibility of the armed forces constituting an agent of regime change in the last months of the Third Reich. At the pinnacle of the military system in the High Command of the Wehrmacht, Keitel and Jodl remained totally behind Hitler, emotionally committed to him in a way that surpassed their functional positions. Wilhelm Keitel, tall and well built, an officer during the First World War and excellent organizer with long experience of army administration, had been deeply impressed by Hitler from the time he had first encountered him back in 1933. At the complete reorganization of the Wehrmacht leadership in early 1938, Hitler, on establishing the OKW, had made Keitel its administrative head. Thereafter Keitel, in whom obedience to the will of the ruler had long been ingrained, was wholly in thrall to Hitler – so much so that he was widely lampooned as being simply his lackey. Alfred Jodl, a tall, balding Bavarian, had also served as an officer in the First World War and, like Keitel, in the small German army during the Weimar Republic. Well versed in operational planning, he had been appointed Chief of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff just before the invasion of Poland in 1939, and had impressed Hitler a few months later with his part in planning the invasion of Scandinavia, then the major western offensive, in spring 1940. Jodl himself had been full of admiration for Hitler’s leadership during the great victory over France. He thought Hitler was a genius – and, despite later disagreements with him on tactical matters, did not change his mind.

Beyond the OKW, the Army General Staff, under Guderian, could no longer incubate any source of disaffection. Nothing but ultra-loyalty could be expected of the Luftwaffe, under Göring’s command. And the navy was headed by the radically pro-Nazi Grand-Admiral Dönitz. With the Replacement Army under Himmler’s tight control and the General Staff purged and brought into line, any new moves to resist the self-destructive course of the Nazi leadership from the two areas most closely associated with the assassination attempt were ruled out for the duration. And no insurrection could be expected from top generals, the frontline commanders-in-chief or their subordinate officers.

The chief waverer among Army Group commanders, Field-Marshal von Kluge, Commander-in-Chief West, had blown hot and cold on the resistance movement, eventually turning his back on the conspirators, but falling nonetheless under deep suspicion in Hitler’s headquarters. He was to kill himself, still protesting his loyalty to the Führer, some weeks later. Dissident officers in Paris, Vienna and Prague had fallen victim to the purge that followed the quashed uprising. The other Army Group commanders and leading generals, whatever their disagreements with Hitler’s orders, were outright loyalists, and remained so. Field-Marshal von Rundstedt and Colonel-General Guderian served – the latter, he subsequently claimed, with great reluctance – on the ‘Court of Honour’ which dismissed from the army officers implicated in the bomb plot, throwing them onto the tender mercies of the ‘People’s Court’ and its notorious presiding judge, Roland Freisler.

Field-Marshal Walter Model, Commander-in-Chief at different times of three Army Groups in the east, an excellent tactician, good organizer and stern disciplinarian who had stood up to Hitler on a number of occasions but remained high in the Dictator’s favour, saw himself as purely a military professional, standing aside from politics. But whatever the self-image of the unpolitical soldier – a delusion he shared with other generals – he of course acted politically in a system that made it impossible to do otherwise. He refused to believe the plotters’ claim on 20 July that Hitler was dead, he was the first military leader to send a declaration of loyalty to the Dictator on hearing of his survival, and he never wavered in his support. At the end of July, he sought through a combination of renewed trust in Hitler and straightforward fear to restore wavering morale and discipline in the devastated Army Group Centre, which had lost 350,000 men killed or captured. ‘The enemy stands at East Prussia’s borders,’ his proclamation to his troops ran. But his own men still held a position enabling them ‘to defend the holy soil of the Fatherland’ and repel the danger of ‘murder, fire and plundering of German villages and towns’, as the Führer, people and comrades fighting on other fronts expected. ‘Cowards have no place in our ranks,’ he went on. ‘Any waverer has forfeited his life. It’s about our homeland, our wives and children.’ Intense concentration of all forces could combat the temporary superiority of the enemy in numbers and matériel. The new responsibilities given to Himmler and Goebbels had provided all the necessary prerequisites for this. ‘No soldier in the world is better than we soldiers of our Führer, Adolf Hitler! Heil to our beloved Führer!’ he ended.

If each of these examples illustrates the corruption of military professionalism in the Third Reich, the last is of a commander, Colonel-General Ferdinand Schörner, of a different type, a fanatical loyalist from ingrained Nazi conviction, a believer in ‘triumph of the will’ and the need for a revolution of the spirit in the army. An indicator of Schörner’s acknowledged fanaticism was that he had served for a brief spell in March 1944 as ‘Chief of the NS-Leadership Staff of the Army’, responsible for coordinating relations between the military and the Party. He brought to Army Group North on his transfer there on 23 July an unprecedented level of ferocious internal discipline that produced, as in his other commands, countless executions for ‘cowardice’, ‘defeatism’ and desertion. He made it plain at the outset that the slightest show of disobedience would be mercilessly punished. In an early declaration to his generals, he expounded his belief that the war was ‘not to be won by tactical measures alone’. Belief, loyalty and fanaticism were increasingly necessary as the enemy neared German borders. Everyone had to realize that the aim of Bolshevism was ‘the destruction of our people’. It was a ‘struggle for existence’ in which the only alternatives were ‘victory or downfall’. To stop the ‘Asiatic flood-wave’, as he described the Soviet advance, faith in victory was ‘the strongest life force’. He ended his communiqué: ‘Heil to the Führer’. Ten years after the war, an officer who had served under him described Schörner as trying ‘to replace energy through brutality, operational flexibility through inflexible principles of defence, a sense of responsibility through lack of conscience’. With such ruthless leadership, the slightest sign of insubordination, let alone any hint of mutiny, was tantamount to suicide.

Quite apart from their personal loyalty to Hitler, and whatever the individual variation in their views on his conduct of the war, or Germany’s prospects, these and other leading generals saw their unconditional duty as doing all they could to defend the Reich against enemy inroads. Nazi values intermingled, often subliminally, with old-fashioned patriotism. As the pressure on the fronts, east, west and south, mounted inexorably, field commanders had little time for other than urgent military matters. Had they been of a single mind, and even dreamt of staging another putsch to end the looming catastrophe, organizing one would have proved impossible. So would confronting Hitler with an ultimatum to stand down or negotiate peace terms. In practice, however, such thoughts never entered the heads of the military elite. Jodl summarized the stance at the top of the military establishment: ‘fortunately the Allied demand for unconditional surrender [laid down at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943] has blocked the way for all those “cowards” who are trying to find a political way of escape.’ Doing what was humanly possible to prevent the destruction of the Reich was seen as the unquestioned imperative. In adhering to such a goal, of course, the generals ensured that precisely this destruction would happen.

At a time when Germany was rocked by disastrous military defeat, amid soaring anxieties over the superiority of enemy forces, Hitler’s war leadership and the prospects for Germany’s future, the assassination attempt and uprising had the effect of strengthening the regime – at least in the short term. In the aftermath, mentalities, structures of control and possibilities for action were all changed.

Attitudes were adjusted – to some extent reshaped. Hitler himself was changed. His paranoia had never been far from the surface. Now it knew no bounds. He sensed treachery on all sides. Treachery gave him the explanation of military failure and of any trace of what he saw as weakness in those around him. It prevented any need for the narcissistic personality to contemplate his own part in the catastrophe. ‘Anyone who speaks to me of peace without victory will lose his head, no matter who he is or what his position,’ he was later claimed to have repeatedly threatened those in his vicinity as the fronts were collapsing. Such a mentality at the head of the regime percolated outwards and downwards. Blind fury, not just at the conspirators, but at the officer corps as a whole, fuelled by a hate-filled tirade by Robert Ley, head of the Labour Front and Organization Leader of the Nazi Party, which advocated the extermination of the aristocracy (described as degenerate, idiotic ‘filth’) – many of the plotters had aristocratic backgrounds – ran in the veins of Party fanatics in these days, but spilled over, too, into the wider public. Bormann even had to contain it in the interests of retaining his own control rather than pour oil onto the flames. Wise and cautious voices kept quiet. Signs of anything that could be interpreteted as defeatism now invited fearful reprisals.

Within the armed forces, leading officers of Schörner’s kind needed no encouragement. But the change in mentalities went beyond soldier fanatics. Belief in victory, commitment to the last reserves of will to hold out, rejection of anything that smacked of the slightest doubt in the struggle, became more than ever incontrovertible tenets of all public parlance, constantly reinforced by the more widely deployed NSFOs. Private doubts were best not aired. At whatever rank, anyone voicing criticism of the war effort was taking a risk. Even close circles of friends and comrades had to take care lest any comment that could be seen as subversive should reach prying ears. From the top downwards in every division, every battalion, every company, officers felt the need to demonstrate loyalty and clamp down on the slightest sign of dissent. It was little wonder that the numbers of executions in the military, as in the civilian sphere, started to soar.

The failed uprising also brought the changes we have examined to the structures of rule. Some of these changes had already been initiated, in the light of the intensified pressures of the war, when Stauffenberg’s bomb went off. The extended role of the RVKs, and, with that, the increased scope for intervention by the Party into state bureaucracy and spheres of military responsibility offers one example. Goebbels saw this as a further sharp incision into the power of the generals. But even where developments were already in train, the events of 20 July and their aftermath served as a sharp accelerator. Radicalization along the line acutely intensified. It was as if the dam had broken and now, finally, a revolutionary war could be fought, on truly National Socialist lines.

The pillars of the regime had been shaken by the events of 20 July, but were left not only standing, but buttressed. Hitler’s charismatic appeal had long since been weakened, but had been temporarily revived by the attempt on his life. More importantly, his hold over the regime was undiluted. The major wielders of power were divided among themselves but united in their dependence upon Hitler’s favour. Each general of the Wehrmacht, too, knew his command lasted only until Hitler took it away. Beneath Hitler, the regime’s grip had been strengthened. The key controls of the regime were in the hands of Nazi leaders with nothing to lose: they knew, and had participated in, its crimes against humanity, most obviously the extermination of the Jews.

Himmler’s empire extended into the Wehrmacht itself. His ruthless repression, now increasingly against members of the ‘people’s community’, as well as conquered ‘Untermenschen’ and ‘racial enemies’, plumbed new depths. Mobilization for total war underwent a frenzied phase of activity under Goebbels, who at the same time cranked up the propaganda machine into overdrive for the backs-to-the-wall effort. Bormann revitalized the Party, finally offering it the prospect of the social and political revolution its fanatical activist core had always sought. And Speer defied adversity in new exploits of mobilizing the armaments industry.

Military power, too, had been consolidated in the hands of loyalists. As fortunes on the battlefield worsened, the military leadership had bound itself to Hitler more tightly than ever. In the process, it had cut off any possibility of extricating itself from those bonds. It had committed itself to the very dualism that Hitler himself embodied: victory or downfall. Since victory was increasingly out of the question, and Hitler invariably and repeatedly ruled out any attempt at a negotiated settlement, that left downfall. Possibilities had changed. There was now no exit route.

From the comfortable distance of imprisonment just outside London, the recently captured Luftwaffe officer Lieutenant Freiherr von Richthofen said in early August in a conversation secretly bugged by British intelligence that he was glad the assassination attempt on Hitler had failed. If it had succeeded, he claimed, there would have been a ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend such as had bedevilled German politics after 1918. This time, he added, it was politically necessary for the nation to go down the road to the bitter end. This assessment was to leave out of the equation the millions of lives that would have been saved had the bomb plot succeeded and the war been rapidly ended. But it was surely correct in its assumption that a new ‘stab-in-the-back’ legend would have arisen, posing a threat to any post-Hitler settlement. And it was undoubtedly correct in its assumption that the failure of the attempt to topple Hitler from within in July 1944 meant that the regime could from now on be overthrown only by total military defeat. Just how the regime might sustain its war effort until that point – as it turned out, still over eight months away – was a question, however, that Richthofen did not pose.